Ned Phillips doesn’t cut the ominous image of the death guy. He’s a lean gentleman dressed in a pristine suit and tie; his precise manners give off an aura of delicate decency. But if there’s anyone who can speak knowledgeably of the Las Vegas death-care industry—euphemisms change on that term—it’s this man.
Phillips is the vice president of community relations at Palm Mortuary, Las Vegas’ largest mortuary business (which recently announced it would be purchased by SCI, a national funeral chain). He’s been in the business 25 years, after a 23-year career in the banking industry. He’s the mind behind Palm’s billboards: “We’d Rather Wait ...” that have dotted Valley roadsides for nearly 20 years. (“It was after a drunk-driving death ... I woke up in the middle of the night with the thought, why not a billboard saying ‘We’d rather wait’?, and I wrote that down—I always keep a pad on the bedside table—and I presented that to management, and shortly thereafter we decided that community-minded messages was the path we wanted to take.”)
We meet at Palm’s Downtown site on Main Street to have a little chat about death, his career, the industry generally, my distasteful interest in whether he’d seen the embalming process first-hand, that sort of thing. Phillips is amenable and pleasant and unflappable.
In order to fully understand the business when he switched careers, he served in a variety of positions, including managing Palm’s Eastern Avenue facility for three years and serving on the state funeral board for 12 years. “I just dove in,” he says.
A huge industry trend, aside from large corporations buying up small family-owned funeral homes, is the rise in cremation. Nevada has the highest cremation rate in the nation right now, near 70 percent, followed by California and Hawaii. For the most part, Phillips says, the trend is driven by personal philosophy, although cremations can be more affordable, depending on what one decides to do with the remains.
“This is very important,” Phillips says. “A lot of people that are choosing cremation think cremation is the end. But what they don’t understand is that they really need to make a decision with respect to the disposition of those cremated remains. In this state they can be buried in the ground or entombed in the mausoleum space or scattered ...”
But, he says, “I’ll get a phone call every so often that cremated remains have been found in an apartment or in the home in the back of a closet because future generations don’t necessarily have a tie to them. So I encourage everybody to make a decision with respect to the final disposition of those cremated remains. Some would prefer to take them home and keep them by their bedside ... [but they should] make arrangements as to what should be done with them when they die.”
Phillips offers up that he chooses not to be cremated. But—and this marks the next death-care industry trend—he wants his funeral to be super-personalized.
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“In my funeral arrangements, I told my wife, ‘If I go first, I happen to be allergic to everything that grows and gives off pollen, so please no flowers. But I’m known for my neckties, so I want my casket spray [usually a blanket of flowers atop the casket] to be made up of my ties.’”
This kind of personal theming, rather than a “cookie-cutter” funeral, is the dominant choice in funerals today, thanks to the Baby Boomers, he says.
“Lots of pictures. Video presentations. Things that are very unique and individual. So if your hobby is knitting, we can do displays regarding knitting. We’ve had people in the landscaping business with their lawn mowers at the service. We have requests that their animals be present. You can do a golf theme—we’ve had golf carts and golf clubs sitting by the casket. So really, we will do anything so long as it is legal, does not infringe on the rights of others, is not damaging to our property and would not be considered undignified,” Phillips says. “It’s that personal touch about that individual that’s so important today.”
Additionally, green funerals are on the rise—in which people want to be buried with the least ecological interference possible. In those burials, which Palm does not offer, people choose not to be embalmed (formaldehyde-based embalming fluid retards disintegration). Embalming is required for open-casket funerals. “People are ill-prepared to see a dead body,” he says. “They’re even less prepared to see a body that hasn’t been prepared. That would be undignified.”
Was Phillips unprepared for the first time he visited the embalming room?
“Actually, I was very interested ... What I really was quite impressed with in my first visit to the prep room was the tender care that was exhibited. You know, if the circulation is poor, than you need to help [massage] the arms and legs, and that’s done in a very caring manner. And the beauticians and cosmeticians take great care in wanting the person to look their best. And we get a lot of compliments,” he says. The prep room, as well as the crematorium, operates at Palm’s Downtown facility 24 hours a day.
Phillips takes me across the hallway to a showroom full of caskets, urns, cremation keepsakes—you can have your loved one’s ashes made into necklaces and pendants—and his face lights up upon describing the variety of choices.
“I really am passionate about it,” he says. “There are so many ways to make it special.”